Unfamiliar British taxa are the order of the day for UK-based company CollectA, and we can now add the relatively obscure plesiosaur Attenborosaurus to their list. Attenborosaurus is one of two plesiosaurs released by CollectA in 2011 (the other one being the Rhomaleosaurus, again, another relatively obscure British genus). Attenborosaurus is from the Lower Jurassic of Charmouth, UK, and the new genus was erected in 1993 by Bob Bakker to honor Sir David Attenborough. The original fossil holotype was destroyed when the Bristol museum was hit during a bombing raid on the city during WW2, but several casts of the fossil still exist. Anatomically, Attenborosaurus has an unusual combination of a long neck and a relatively large and long-snouted head, which makes it difficult to place it into plesiosaurian classifications. Attenborosaurus is my favorite plesiosaur, partly for its oddness, partly for the vicious stealthy appearance of its skull, and partly because I spent a considerable amount of time restoring the Trinity College cast in Dublin, where I worked for a while. So I was very excited to hear CollectA had decided to resurrect it in toy form!
The bloated body is perfectly circular in cross section and consequently rather cartoonish. The standard description of the plesiosaur body as barrel-shaped is not to be taken quite so literally and is simply not true for many taxa. The exact shape of the body is unknown in Attenborosaurus. In the skeleton of Attenborosaurus, and some other long necked plesiosaurs, there is a prominent increase in the height of the neural spines in the pectoral region. The presence of a raised ridge between the shoulder blades in the CollectA Attenborosaurus, reminiscent of the withers in terrestrial animals, may therefore be quite accurate.
The neck is about the right length but appears rather emaciated. The flippers, although also particularly dainty and very lightly muscled, are just about right in overall shape and size – certainly an improvement over some of CollectAs other efforts. The tiny tail is almost vestigial and most likely too small based on other plesiosaurs. The reduced tail in this figure is probably due to the tail not being completely preserved in the holotype material.
The head has the long snout and short temporal region typical of Attenborosaurus, and is clearly based on the holotype skull. Details include the retracted nares (nostrils), quite neatly sculpted teeth, and shallow indications of the temporal fenestrae and orbital openings. Despite these nice details, it still looks a little goofy from some angles – I think this is because of the slightly upturned ‘smiling’ mouth and the lack of eyelids.
The skin is mainly smooth but there are some surface details – the rear part of the body, the tail and the hind flippers, is covered in toad-like warts! Weird! Edit – I always took these warts to be pure artistic licence, but since writing this review, I revisited Sollas (1881) paper describing the fossil material of Attenborosaurus. He provides a discussion of the preserved integument (skin) in the type specimen and notes, in the pelvic region, the presence of “a small oblong bone, the smooth shining surface of which is raised into three parallel longitudinal ridges; other fragments of similar bone are indicated in the same spot”. He goes on: “Their presence can scarcely be accidental; and they may possibly be dermal plates. That they are not found elsewhere would simply point to the restricted distribution of dermal scutes in the species, they having been originally present in the pelvic region and nowhere else”. I’ve never seen such scutes in any other plesiosaur or the casts of the Attenborosaurus (he original material was destroyed in World War 2), so I’m suspicious, but it seems CollectA didn’t make this up from whole cloth after all – someone there is reading the historical scientific literature! So, armoured plesiosaurs – interesting, huh?. There is also something unusual going on ‘down below’: upon examining the figure my girlfriend exclaimed: “ooh, it’s a girl!”, which is really just a less crude way of pointing out the rather extensive genital flaps surrounding the cloacal opening. Whether plesiosaurs has such a well developed cloaca is pure speculation, but in terms of accuracy, I suppose a graphic cloacal opening is better than no cloacal opening at all!
At 20 cm long, the figure is medium sized, and roughly to scale with the larger CollectA Rhomaleosaurus. The almost uniform chocolate brown colouration, slightly darker on the top, is unremarkable. Overall I like this model and commend CollectA for breaking away from the usual plesiosaur toy fare (Elasmosaurus and Plesiosaurus). The quality of their figures does seem to be improving from year to year. That said, CollectA models still lack the finesse seen in other modern lines, such as those of Safari Ltd, Favourite Co. Ltd and Papo (ignoring the inaccuracies in the latter), so I look forward to seeing them continue to improve.